Bilateral tensions soar, but multilateral meetings continue. How long can India-China ties bear the diplomatic contradictions with the military situation?
External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar held a trilateral meeting of the Russia-India-China grouping and joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or SCO meeting that includes China this week.
The talks, which do not deal with any bilateral issues came even as the Indian army and PLA soldiers continue to hold their 19 month standoff at the Line of Actual Control that began when Chinese soldiers amassed their troops along the Line in Ladakh and Sikkim in April 2020, and then transgressed into areas that India claims, leading to a number of clashes including at Galwan where 20 Indian soldiers, and an undisclosed number of Chinese soldiers were killed in brutal conditions in June 2020.
The continuing standoff has led many to wonder about the relevance of India’s participation at multilateral events like this one:
1. This is the 18 annual meeting at a ministerial level of the Russia India China trilateral- where the three countries discuss strengthening cooperation and exchange views on various regional and international issues of importance- however, they do not discuss one of the most important regional issue, that of the India-China standoff, as this is a bilateral issue.
2. India and China are also part of the SCO where leaders have met since 2017 as members, and prior to that India was an observer state since 2005
3. They are also part of the BRICS- the grouping of emerging economies Brazil Russia India China South Africa- started in 2009 to challenge the existing financial world order- where they discuss not just economic issues- PM Modi hosted the 13 summit in September 2021
4. And are part of BASIC- India along with Brazil, South Africa and China, as 4 big newly industrialised nations, decided in 2009 to keep a common stand on climate change issues, and even held a meeting during the recent CoP26, where they published a joint stand
5. India and China have attended a number of other multilateral groupings- some much bigger like the 27 member CICA- Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia since 1999 or 53 member ASEM- Asia Europe Meeting since 1996, which Vice President Naidu spoke at this week.
Can India sustain meeting in smaller more intensive groups along with China while the bilateral relationship is growing more and more tense?
At the 3,488 Km LAC:
1. PLA troops continue to amass on their side of the LAC, building infrastructure, storing weapons and ammunition, even tanks at several points- which the Indian Army has matched, and both sides are currently deploying soldiers in the bitter cold for the second consecutive winter
2. While the government says it is still to understand the reasons for the Chinese moves, one of the reasons that led to tensions was the government’s decision to make changes in Jammu Kashmir, carve out Ladakh, and its assertion in parliament that it would reclaim the area of Aksai Chin under Chinese control, along with PoK had also spurred reactions from Beijing
3. 13 rounds of Military commanders talks have yielded the disengagement of troops at just two points- Pangong Tso, or Pangong lake, where both China and India relinquished heights they had climbed, and at the Gogra point, but are yet to make headway on demobilizing at Hotsprings, Demchok and Depsang
4. Further down the line, there is a standoff at Sikkim, and then more Chinese activity at Doklam plateau near Bhutan, where Indian and Chinese troops faced off in 2017, and where Chinese troops are now understood to have built much more architecture, including villages. In addition, the China-Bhutan MoU announced recently raises the spectre of Bhutan ceding territory here in exchange for territory in the North, which would mean more Indian troops would be needed to secure its boundaries
5. At Arunachal Pradesh, Chinese soldiers have, according to satellite photos released by NDTV, and even a US Pentagon report built villages in disputed territory. The significance of settling villages is now clear after China passed its new Land Border law in October, which empowers the PLA to claim territory where Chinese settlers are. Despite the worries, Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat said on November 11 that there is no Chinese village on the Indian side, which seemed at variance with the MEA, that said that it had always protested such development with the Chinese side. Both were responding to questions about the Pentagon report.
Apart from the Military sphere- tensions are rising on other fronts:
1. India banned 60 Chinese apps, causing Chinese tech companies to lose a massive market
2. Regulated all applications for Chinese Foreign Direct Investment into India to the point where no permissions for these are being given
3. More recently, the government agencies have conducted raids on a number of Chinese controlled companies operating in India, including the tech giant ZTE- accusing it of regulatory malpractices and even hinting at corporate espionage.
4. Amid a global microchip and semiconductor shortage, the government has hinted that China, that has a monopoly on the market, may be squeezing India particularly, which FM Sitaraman said is slowing India’s growth story.
5. India has cut Chinese companies like Huawei out of its 5G telecom trials, citing security concerns
Tensions are also rising between India and China in the neighbourhood
– In Nepal, for example, where, the military felt China instigated an India Nepal spat over disputed territories like Limpiyadhura, which led to military tensions last year
– In Sri Lanka, India has protested being cut out of the East Container Terminal deal, apparently at the behest of China, which has bagged the contract for phase 2 construction of the ECT.
– In Maldives, the Solih government, which is seen as closer to India has cancelled a few Chinese projects, apparently due to India’s discomfort
– China remains the biggest military arms supplier to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar
– China’s Bhutan MoU is a possible contentious issue between India and Bhutan
– China declined to attend NSA meet on Afghanistan this month, while attending the pakistani troika meeting
– In the past year, China has moved to set up a covid relief and poverty alleviation centre including all south Asian countries minus India (and Bhutan)
On the bilateral diplomatic front too:
– There have been no meetings or calls at the top between PM Modi and President Xi since April 2020, despite the fact that they had met 18 times in the preceding 6 years
– India has grown visibly closer to the US on strategic issues especially on measures to counter China in the Indo Pacific and on issues like technology and covid virus origins
– India refuses to hold regular bilateral talks on any issue other than the LAC standoff
– Talks on trade, development, cultural and people to people ties are also in cold storage
While many believe the multilateral meetings offer a platform for bringing tensions down, providing off-ramps for India and China, the contradictions seem unsustainable in the long run, and the question is really when and not if India will make it clear that engagement with China, even multilaterally is at odds with the continuing aggressions at the LAC, until troops return to positions Status Quo Ante, pre April 2020.